John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Pick up after yourself

Responding to yesterday’s “Turn out the lights” post, Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism commented thus:

Most interesting from the Strib editor's memo, of course, is this:

“This will also require more individual responsibility: Reporters cannot turn in stories without running a basic spell check. Editors should have reporters read over every story they have edited. Photographers must turn in accurate cutlines that adhere to AP style. More staffers will need to be flexible about the work they do, meaning some reporters might serve a shift as a copy editor or line editor in any given week.”

I hope they sell tickets. Promises to be great entertainment.


The civilians among you may find this difficult to credit, but there are indeed professional journalists at major newspapers who do not routinely spell-check their own work before submitting it for publication. They are under time pressure, poor dears, and besides, they have been accustomed to the idea that some anonymous drudge on the copy desk will clean up after them. (Incidentally, any number of assigning editors don’t bother to run a spell-check either.)

It’s not just spell-checking — though that would tend to catch when they spell proper names inconsistently — but a host of other matters usually left to the copy desk: Fact-checking. Establishing conventional grammar and syntax. Locating the focus, if any, in the article. Cutting padding and irrelevant material. Restraining ill-advised self-indulgence.

It doesn’t matter. The people at the higher levels making these decisions to eliminate copy editors don’t understand what copy editors do. They think they can just tell reporters to pick up the slack. It is as if a teenager whose entire wardrobe lies in heaps on the floor, who has never carried a dirty plate or glass from the living room to the kitchen without prodding, and who leaves the bathroom in a shape not fit to be described here, will instantaneously — at a mere word — make everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Thus Mr. Fisher’s well-founded expectation of amusement to come.

I do feel a pang for the people at working level, the supervisors whose task is to carry out imbecilic directives. They must feel as General von Paulus did on his promotion to field marshal.

(Hitler’s thinking, with the Sixth Army collapsing under the Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad, was that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. Von Paulus surrendered the day after his promotion. Examples of wishful thinking are not limited to the Nazi high command. )

The new era arrives and will not be denied. So. Let the corrections column expand. Let the crash blossoms flower. Let even more readers seek their information elsewhere.

19 comments:

  1. I have previously quoted Rafael Alvarez, who said at the end of his first week of being pulled from the reporter ranks to edit metro stories:

    "Reading other people's raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked."

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  2. Does "well-founded" really get a hyphen? In the dims mists of time I was taught that you left the hyphen out in cases like this.

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  3. Okay, forget it. "Well" seems to be one exception.

    Carry on as you were.

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  4. Until Wall Street ends its infatuation with the MBAization of American business, we'll continue to spiral into the abyss of incredibly bad corporate decision-making, I'm afraid.

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  5. Re: The Alvarez quote
    At one newsroom I have worked at, there were four reporters covering a particular area/beat. (Four reporters on a coverage area --a luxury these days. Ha!) When one of the reporters was tapped to fill in for their editor, who was on leave, that reporter said she then discovered why sometimes certain reporters were not assigned stories, especially complex and/or breaking news ones. She was very surprised (her exact word might have been "horrified") to see her colleagues' raw copy.

    And as for spellcheck, the software is useless if the writer and assignment editor have misused words such as their/there/they're, one/won, to/too, here/hear, minion/minyan, etc.

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  6. If only it were just a simple matter of getting the reporters to use spell-check. I routinely find spelling errors even in copy in programs that spell-check automatically. It's long been a bafflement to me why people wouldn't dream of deliberately dropping trash on the floor of their office and just leaving it for the cleaning crew to pick up, yet they will turn in copy riddled with spelling errors because, hey, the copy editors will clean it up after I'm gone...

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  7. A tale from the past: I approached a nervous intern to straighten out the varied spellings of proper names in his story. He apologized, saying he wasn't a good typist and was struggling with writing on deadline. I gently suggested that he use spellcheck. He was nearly in tears when he said he'd asked the veteran reporters how to use it, and all had insisted that he shouldn't because that was the copy desk's job. It was beneath them.

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  8. I'm one of the few reporters who checks spelling and grammar before submitting a story, but I also have fallen prey to human error. Therefore, I have a great deal of reverence and respect for the tasks performed by copy editors. However, just as there are lazy reporters, there are lazy copy editors. Your entry reveres editors’ abilities and professionalism while clearly denigrating reporters’. I’d have appreciated more balance.

    That said, I couldn’t agree more that cutting copy editor jobs is a mistake.

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  9. I'm going to take a contrarian position. While I think it's going to be highly amusing, one of the lessons that the Detroit auto industry is still learning from Toyota and the Japanese is that real quality comes from a concern for quality at each step in the process. Quality cannot be imposed at the end of the line when crap is delivered.

    That said, simply ordering it to be done from the lofty precincts of the executive row is not likely to work.

    John Roth

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  10. As a fledgling writer but an avid reader, I cannot picture the serious reporter who has pride in his/her story not wanting to spell-check. I read your comment about lack of time and the pressure of deadlines. But when one writes a piece it is as if a work of art is being produced. An artist would not display a painting with obvious errors in it. A musician would not play a piece which has random, unchecked notes. A writer (reporter or not) should not be satisfied with a piece which is filled with mis-spellings or imperfect data. I am an idealist, with lots of retirement time on my hands, so maybe the concept escapes me because I don't have deadlines. How long does it take to spell-check?

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  11. Yule bee sari went ewe used spiel cheek.

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  12. To jedword: Would that all reporters still saw their stories as evidence of their skill and craft.

    For some, the grind of multiple daily deadlines, on beats or stories they have no personal interest in, and without much guidance or appreciation from their editors, results in a kind of "just churn it out" mentality.

    Reporters who used to have pride in their work are disheartened and disillusioned. If they don't care so much about their stories, then it doesn't hurt so much to see it overhauled without a word of explanation, or worse, go to print practically untouched, containing errors the neophyte reporter cringes over after publication.

    Also, reporters in these newsrooms learn that you work faster and meet deadlines better if you don't care as much. There are other ways of getting faster without losing quality, of course, but no one teaches them those skills.

    I've witnessed this grind in a few newsrooms, and it's very sad to watch. I hope it's the exception and not the rule at most papers, but sometimes I fear it's not.

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  13. That editor has also forgotten that Mr. Spell-check is not always our friend. The infamous photo of the mujahadin supporter with the sign reading "Death To All Juice" is a case in point.

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  14. Trouble is some newspaper executives seem to think that copy editors exist simply to correct spelling and grammar - and it's a perfectly logical step from there to suggest that it might be a good idea if reporters learned how to spell and to write grammatically. And we reinforce that view if we just respond "Ah, but the fact is reporters can't spell and never will be able to."

    Better is to persist in explaining that correcting the spelling of halfwits is just a tiny part of what copy editors do. And, perhaps, to ask the newspapers' lawyers what they feel about ditching the editing process.

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  15. I'm familiar with a paper that apparently skimps on copy editing, and it's not pretty. It's The Metro in Boston, a free daily tabloid (they're in other cities too, don't know if they're equally bad there). I catch a blatant spelling/grammar/punctuation/usage mistake nearly every day, frequently in headlines and captions. They're particularly bad with its/it's--how can someone who gets paid to write not know the difference??? If this is the future of journalism, I'm scared.

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  16. "The new era arrives and will not be denied. So. Let the corrections column expand."

    Well, if a paper gets rid of its ombudsman position, as did my paper along with other staff cuts, one result is that the number of corrections declined. Stupid ombudsman, making all that trouble.

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  17. Patricia the TerseJanuary 10, 2010 at 2:07 AM

    Academics and government writers - bureaucrats- don't seem to edit their own works for publication. Newspapers just seem to be catching up. Unhappily this just puts them in the category of "Things No One Wants to Read." Which is a great pity.

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  18. Here would be a great place to bemoan the general decline in "standards" throughout society. Instead, I'll confine myself to thanking you for an entertaining and thought-provoking blog.

    As a curmudgeon, I love to complain that this slide began with the end of Latin instruction in "grammar" schools. (Whiff the musty stank of middle age.) If nothing else, having studied Latin is a terrific argument-stopper. A bit like the rogue cop who, about to beat the crap out of some hapless informant, retracts his jacket just enough to show the hilt of his Desert Eagle.

    Keep the flail handy, Mr. McIntyre. I suspect your arm will tire before you run out of deserving victims.

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  19. Actually, I'm not particularly confident that the "standards" were ever that high.

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